The Glories of Ireland



Ireland has the unique distinction of having preserved for mankind a full and vivid literary record of a period otherwise, so far as native memorials are concerned, clouded in obscurity. A few fragmentary suggestions, derived from ancient stone monuments or from diggings in tumuli and graves, are all that Gaul or Britain have to contribute to a knowledge of that important period just before and just after the beginning of our era, when the armies of Rome were overrunning western Europe and were brought, for the first time, into direct contact with the Celtic peoples of the West. Almost all that we know of the early inhabitants of these countries comes to us from the pens of Roman writers and soldiers–Poseidonius, Caesar, Diodorus, Tacitus. We may give these observers credit for a desire to be fair to peoples they sometimes admired and often dreaded, but conquerors are not always the best judges of the races they are engaged in subduing, especially when they are ignorant of their language, unversed in their lore and customs, and unused to their ways. Valuable as are the reports of Roman authorities, we feel at every point the need of checking them by native records; but the native records of Gaul, and in large part also those of Britain and Wales, have been swept away. Caesar is probably right in saying that the Druids, who were the learned men of their race and day, committed nothing to writing; if they did, whatever they wrote has been irrecoverably lost.

But Ireland was exempt from the sweeping changes brought about through long periods of Roman and Saxon occupation; no great upheaval from without disturbed the native political and social conditions up to the coming of the Norse and Danes about the beginning of the ninth century. Agricola, standing on the western coast of Britain, looked across the dividing channel, and reflected upon “the beneficial connection that the conquest of Ireland would have formed between the most powerful parts of the Roman Empire,” but, fortunately for the literature of Ireland, if not for her history, he never came. The early incursions of the Scotti or Irish were eastward into England, Wales, and Gaul, and there seem to have been few return movements towards the west. Ireland pursued her path of native development undisturbed. It is to this circumstance that she owes the preservation of so much of her native literature, a great body of material, historical, religious, poetic, romantic, showing marks of having originated at a very early time, and of great variety and interest.

At what period this literature first began to be written down we do not know. Orosius tells us that a traveler named Aethicus spent a considerable time in Ireland early in the fifth century “examining their volumes”, which tends to prove that there was writing in Ireland before St. Patrick. But the native bard must have made writing superfluous. The man who could, at a moment’s notice, recite any one out of the 350 stories which might be called for, besides poetry, genealogies, and tribal records, was worth many books. Only a few were expert enough to read his writings, but all could enjoy his tales.

The earliest written records that we have now existing date from the seventh or eighth century; but undoubtedly there is preserved for us, in these materials, a picture of social conditions going back to the very beginning of our era, and coeval with the stage of civilization known in archaeology as La Tène or “Late Celtic”.

To help his memory the early “shanachie” or story-teller grouped his romantic story-store under different heads, such as “Táins” or Cattle-spoils, Feasts, Elopements, Sieges, Battles, Destructions, Tragical Deaths; but it is easier for us now to group them in another way, and to class together the series of tales referring to the Tuatha De Danann or ancient deities, those belonging to the Red Branch cycle of King Conchobar and Cuchulainn, those relating to Finn, and the Legends of the Kings. The hundred or more tales belonging to the second group are especially valuable for social history on account of the detailed descriptions they give of customs, dress, weapons, habits of life, and ethical ideas. To the historian, folklorist, and student of primitive civilizations they are documents of the highest importance.

It seems likely that the Red Branch cycle of tales, including the epic tale of the Táin or Cattle-spoil of Cualnge, which has gathered round itself a number of minor tales, had some basis of historical fact, and arose in the period of Ulster’s predominance to celebrate the deeds of a band of warlike champions who flourished in the north about the beginning of the Christian era. No one who has visited the raths of Emain Macha, near Armagh, where stood the traditional site of the ancient capital of Ulster, or has followed the well-defined and massive outworks of Rath Celtchair and the forts of the other heroes whose deeds the tales embody, could doubt that they had their origin in great events that once happened there. The topography of the tales is absolutely correct. Or again, when we cross over into Connacht, the remains at Rath Croghan, near the ancient palace of the Amazonian queen, Medb, testify to similar events. She it was who in her “Pillow Talk” with her husband Ailill declared that she had married him only because in him did she find the “strange bride-gift” which her imperious nature demanded, “a man without stinginess, without jealousy, without fear.” It was in her desire to surpass her husband in wealth that she sent the combined armies of the south and west into Ulster to carry off a famous bull, the Brown Bull of Cooley, the only match in Ireland for one possessed by her spouse. This raid forms the central subject of the Táin Bó Cúalnge. The motif of the tale and the kind of life described in it alike show the primitive conditions out of which it had its rise. It belongs to a time when land was plenty for the scattered inhabitants to dwell upon, but stock to place upon it was scarce. The possession of herds was necessary, not only for food and the provisioning of troops, but as a standard of wealth, a proof of position, and a means of exchange. Everything was estimated, before the use of money, by its value in kine or herds. When Medb and Ailill compare their possessions, to find out which of them is better than the other, their herds of cattle, swine, and horses are driven in, their ornaments and jewels, their garments and vats and household appliances are displayed. The pursuit of the cattle of neighboring tribes was the prime cause of the innumerable raids which made every man’s life one of perpetual warfare, much more so than the acquisition of land or the avenging of wrongs. Hence a motif that may seem to us insufficient and remote as the subject of a great epic arose out of the necessities of actual life. Cattle-driving is the oldest of all occupations in Ireland.

The conditions we find described in these tales show us an open country, generally unenclosed by hedges or walls. The chariots can drive straight across the province. There are no towns, and the stopping places are the large farmers’ dwellings, open inns known as “houses of hospitality”, fortified by surrounding raths or earthen walls, the only private property in land, in a time when the tribe-land was common, that we hear of at this period. Within these borders lay the pleasure grounds and gardens and the cattle-sheds for the herds, which the great landowner or chief loaned out to the smaller men in return for services rendered. Here were trained in arts of industry and fine needlework the daughters of the chief men of the tribe and their foster-sisters, drawn from the humbler families around them. The rivers as a rule formed the boundaries of the provinces, and the fords were constantly guarded by champions who challenged every wayfarer to single combat, if he could not show sufficient reason for crossing the borderland. These combats were fought actually in the ford itself, and all wars began in a long series of single hand-to-hand combats between equal champions before the armies as a whole engaged each other.

To fight was every man’s prime duty, and the man who had slain the largest number of his fellows was acclaimed as the greatest hero. It was the proud boast of Conall Cernach, “the Victorious”, that seldom had a day passed in which he had not challenged a Connachtman, and few nights in which a Connachtman’s head had not formed his pillow. It shows the primitive savagery of the period that skulls of enemies were worn dangling from the belt, and were stored up in one of the palaces of Emain Macha as trophies of valor. So warlike were the heroes that even during friendly feasts their weapons had to be hung up in a separate house, lest they should spring to arms in rivalry with their own fellows.

Yet in spite of this rude barbarism of outward life, the warriors had formed for themselves a high and exacting code of honor, which may be regarded as the first steps toward what in later times and other countries became known as “chivalry”; save that there is in the acts of the Irish heroes a simplicity and sincerity which puts them on a higher level than the obligatory courtesies of more artificial ages. Generosity between enemies was carried to an extraordinary pitch. Twice over in fights with different foes, Conall Cernach binds his right hand to his side in order that his enemy, who had lost one hand, may fight on equal terms with him. The two severest combats sustained by Cuchulainn, the youthful Ulster champion, in the long war of the Táin are those with Loch the Great and Ferdiad, both first-rate warriors, who had been forced by the wiles of Medb into unwilling conflict against their young antagonist. In their youth they had been fellow-pupils in the school of the Amazon Scathach, who had taught them both alike the arts of war. When Loch the Great, as a dying request, prays Cuchulainn to permit him to rise, “so that he may fall on his face and not backwards towards the men of Erin,” lest hereafter it should be said that he fell in flight, Cuchulainn replies: “That will I surely, for it is a warrior’s boon thou cravest,” and he steps back to allow the wounded man to reverse his position in the ford. The tale of Cuchulainn’s combat with Ferdiad has become classic; nothing more pathetic or more full of the true spirit of chivalry is to be found in any literature. Each warrior estimates nobly the prowess of the other, each sorrowfully recalls the memory of old friendships and expeditions made together. When Ferdiad falls, his ancient comrade pours out over him a passionate lament. Each night, when the day’s combat is over, they throw their arms round each other’s neck and embrace. Their horses are put up in the same paddock and their charioteers sleep beside the same fire; each night Cuchulainn sends to his wounded friend a share of the herbs that are applied to his own wounds, while to Cuchulainn Ferdiad sends a fair half of the pleasant delicate food supplied to him by the men of Erin. We may recall, too, Cuchulainn’s act of compassion towards Queen Medb near the close of the Táin. Her army is flying in rout homeward across the Shannon, closely pursued by Cuchulainn. As he approaches the ford he finds Queen Medb lying prostrate on the bank, unable any longer to guard the retreat of her army. She appeals to her enemy to aid her; and Cuchulainn, with that lovable boyish delight in acts of supreme generosity which is always ascribed to him, undertakes to shield the retreat of the disordered host from his own troops and to see them safely across the river, while Medb reposes peacefully in a field hard by. The spirit which actuates the heroes is well expressed by Cuchulainn when his friends would restrain him from going forth to his last fight, knowing that in that battle he must fall: “I had rather than the whole world’s gold and than the earth’s riches that death had ere now befallen me, so would not this shame and testimony of reproach now stand recorded against me; for in every tongue this noble old saying is remembered, ‘Fame outlives life.'”

The Irish tales surpass those of the Arthurian cycle in simplicity, in humor, and in human interest; the characters are not mere types of fixed virtues and vices, they have each a strongly marked individuality, consistently adhered to through the multitude of different stories in which they play a part. This is especially the case with regard to the female characters. Emer, Deirdre, Etain, Grainne may be said to have introduced into European literature new types of womanhood, quite unlike, in their sprightliness and humor, their passionate affection and heroic qualities, to anything found elsewhere. Stories about women play a large part in ancient Irish literature; their elopements, their marriages, their griefs and tragedies, form the subject of a large number of tales. Among the list of tales that any bard might be called upon to recite, the “Courtships” or “Wooings” probably formed a favorite group; they are of great variety and beauty. The Irish, indeed, may be called the inventors of the love-tale for modern Europe.

The gravest defect of this literature (a defect which is common to all early literature before coming under the chastening hand of the master) is undoubtedly its tendency to extravagance; though much depended upon the individual writer, some being stylists and some not, all were prone to frequent and grotesque exaggerations. The lack of restraint and self-criticism is everywhere apparent; the old Irish writer seems incapable of judging how to shape his material with a view to presenting it in its best form. Thus, we have the feeling, even with regard to the Táin Bó Cúalnge, that what has come down to us is rather the rough-shaped material of an epic than a completed design. The single stories and the groups of stories have been handled and rehandled at different times, but only occasionally, as in the Story of Deirdre (the “Sorrowful Tale of the Sons of Usnech”), or in the later versions of the “Wooing of Emer”, or the Book of Leinster version of the “Wooing of Ferb”, do we feel that a competent artist has so formed his story that the best possible value has been extracted from it. Yet, in spite of their defects, the old heroic sagas of Ireland have in them a stimulating force and energy, and an element of fine and healthy optimism, which is strangely at variance with the popular conception of the melancholy of Irish literature, and which, wherever they are known, make them the fountain-head of a fresh creative inspiration. This stimulating of the imagination is perhaps the best gift that a revived interest in the old native romance of Ireland has to bestow.


The originals of many of the Tales of the Cuchulainn cycle of romances will be found, usually accompanied by English or German translations, in the volumes of Irische Texte; Revue Celtique; Zeitschrift für Celt. Phil.; Eriu; Irish Texts Society, vol. II; Atlantis; Proceed. of the R. Irish Academy (Irish MSS. Series and Todd Lecture Series). English translations: of the Táin Bó Cúalnge (LU. and Y.B.L. versions), by Miss Winifred Faraday (1904); (LL. version with conflate readings), by Joseph Dunn (1914); of various stories: E. Hull, The Cuchulain Saga in Irish Literature (1898); A. H. Leahy, Heroic Romances of Ireland (1905-6), the Courtship of Ferb (1902). French translations in Arbois de Jubainville’s Epopée celtique en Irlande; German translations in Thurneysen’s Sagen aus dem alien Irland (1901); free rendering by S. O’Grady in The Coming of Cuchullain (1904), and in his History of Ireland, the Heroic Period (1878). For full bibliography, see R. I. Best’s Bibliography of Irish Philology and Printed Literature (1913), and Joseph Dunn’s Táin Bó Cúalnge, pp. xxxii-xxxvi (1914).

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